BA (Hons) (ANU), MA (ANU), PhD (MIT)


I contribute in five main areas: describing Australian Indigenous languages, language theories, Aboriginal children’s languages, public policy with respect to languages and education, and the development of research infrastructure for language work. This work has largely been collaborative and often interdisciplinary. 

In describing Australian Aboriginal languages I have covered a wide range, from sentence structure, word meanings, to how they change over time and how they are learned by children, to the history and society of the speakers. I have written grammars of the Central Australian languages Warlpiri and Warumungu based on joint fieldwork with David Nash. This involved language maintenance work with communities. I have also analysed languages on the basis of nineteenth century sources. This include a model for categorising Indigenous placenames, in the first linguistic survey of place-names in Aboriginal languages across Australia. 

The impact of language documentation work is deep and subtle. Creating a spelling system for a language and helping community members to learn to read and write it, enables community members to label places and to provide names for new institutions and places. It gives them vernacular literacy as a tool for helping their children maintain the languages.  

Deeper understanding of how languages work often arises from rigorously applying formal linguistic theories in the study of unusual constructions. I have studied free word order in Australian Aboriginal languages, and the resultative constructions of Germanic languages (using Lexical Functional Grammar), and have analysed clitic structures of Australian Aboriginal languages and hypocoristic constructions of Australian English (using template morphology). 

Documenting Aboriginal languages led to the Aboriginal Child Language Acquisition project, a collaboration with Gillian Wigglesworth, Patrick McConvell and doctoral students who are now leading researchers. This, the first comparative study of Aboriginal children’s language learning, laid the groundwork for understanding the new mixed languages that have arisen since contact. It also made us sharply aware that Indigenous children face difficulties in schools primarily staffed by monolingual English speakers, and which lack adequate provision in the curriculum for recognising the children’s home languages and drawing on them for enriching understanding. In turn this has led to work on public policy, most recently the National Indigenous Languages Report. 

It also engendered my interest in improving scholarly and research infrastructure, beginning with establishing Papulu Apparrkari, the Tennant Creek language centre in the late 1980s. This was followed by a digital archiving project with David Nash, the National Lexicography Project at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Later, I helped others establish the PARADISEC digital archive for endangered languages and cultures of the Pacific region, and the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages I also collaborated in establishing the Australian Linguistics Institute, bringing researchers and students and Indigenous people together. This has continued in the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language summer schools.

Chair of Indigenous Linguistics (ANU), Deputy Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language

Member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies

  1. 2019 (with Denise Angelo, Carmel O’Shannessy, J Inge Kral, Hilary Smith & Emma Clare Brown Well-being and Indigenous Language Ecologies (WILE): a strengths-based approach: Literature review, National Indigenous Languages Report, Pillar 2. ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, Australian National University, Canberra. DOI 10.25911/5dd50865580ea 
  2.  2018 (with Gillian Wigglesworth and Jill Vaughan) (eds). Language practices of Indigenous children and youth: The transition from home to school. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK 
  3.  2008 (with Ilana Mushin). Free to bound to free? Interactions between pragmatics and syntax in the development of Australian pronominal systems. Language 84 (3):566-596.  
  4.  2009 (with Josephine Caffery & Patrick McConvell). Gaps in Australia's Indigenous Language Policy: Dismantling bilingual education in the Northern Territory. Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Discussion Paper 24.  
  5.  2002. A learner's guide to Warumungu: Mirlamirlajinjjiki Warumunguku apparrka. Alice Springs: IAD Press. 198p.